I’ve only crossed a picket line once, and I wouldn’t do it again. It was in the early Nineties when I was working for the BBC in Millbank presenting “Westminster Live”.
In fact, I had every right to do so because the NUJ had given freelances like me a dispensation to enter BBC buildings provided we didn’t actually do any work there. This was the height of the Birt era, things were getting nasty. There was a suspicion that BBC management might retaliate by getting rid of the only people who could easily be fired - the ones they didn’t actually employ.
But even with the blessing of the NUJ, it was still a deeply unpleasant experience. I can’t actually remember what the strike was about, but I can remember the look on peoples’ faces as I walked over the line. Amazed, hurt incomprehension. There was little point trying to explain, since I couldn’t really convince myself.
There are some things in life you just don’t do, and this was one of them. The irony was that, some six months later, I was dumped by the new head of parliamentary broadcasting, Samir Shah, to make way for the “Crimewatch” presenter, Nick Ross, in a loopy attempt to make parliament popular. It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me, but that’s another story.
So, I will not be entering BBC Parliament to present Holyrood Live next week (I wasn’t contracted to work on Monday) - even though I now work mainly for non-BBC organisations and I am much less of a corporation man than a decade ago. Instead, I shall reflect on how many of those angry young men and women on that Millbank picket in 1993/4 will be crossing the lines, because they now occupy senior BBC executive posts in London. It falls to them to justify the extraordinary breakdown in relations within the BBC in the year or so since the departure former Director General Greg Dyke
This strike is an important one. In these days of flexible labour markets and ‘portfolio’ careers, it isn’t easy to mount an action like this, let alone win public sympathy for workers who are, mostly, in relatively secure jobs with pensions. However, it is precisely because this is not a conventional dispute about pay and conditions that so many BBC staff were prepared to join the picket lines this week.
Fifteen thousand stayed away in all. Unions say only about 100 of he 1200 employed at Queen Margaret Drive went to work, and even though management put the numbers who ignored the strike at 40%, they were clearly surprised at the scale of this action. It is fifteen years since the last major strike at BBC Scotland, led by the broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, who is now, ironically, an independent producer herself.
For most of the young BBC producers and journalists on the picket lines on Monday, trades unions are ancient history. Sitting rather uncomfortably in union meetings, discussing things like picket rotas, braziers (optional) and hearing the archaic language of industrial militancy has been a culture shock. People just don’t do this kind of thing any more. It all went out with the miners and Maggie Thatcher. One official told me that he’d been asked by a member if it was ok to join the picket after finishing work.
But the likelihood is that next week’s forty eight hour stoppage will happen as planned, even though the BBC and the unions have been agreed to meet at the conciliation service, ACAS, (yes, it still exists), on Thursday. Feelings are running high.
I don’t see the BBC backing down either. Senior executives like to portray the cuts as a life and death struggle to salvage the licence fee from a New Labour government, heavily influenced by commercial predators like Rupert Murdoch, which hasn’t forgiven the corporation for challenging its stance on the Iraq war. There may be something in that.
But for their part, the unions are buoyed by the success of Monday’s action and will want another opportunity to show that they matter. BBC staff are up for it too, even though they stand to lose a lot of cash. They feel they are acting out of something more important than mere self-interest.
This is a mood I haven’t seen for twenty years. Militant isn’t quite the right word, but there is a determination to challenge what most see as an attempt to alter the ethos of the corporation and undermine public service broadcasting. It’s not so much the 4,000 job losses - they could have been managed away in three years though voluntary redundancy. What is more offensive is the ‘up yours’ attitude of management and the likely damage to programme-making of an arbitrary 15% budget cut across the board.
That may seem small beer in London, where the BBC is never knowingly undermanned, but in Scotland, where programmes I have been involved with are run with around a quarter of the staff customary in London, it can be devastating. More controversial still is the proposal to hive off 25% of BBC productions to the private sector through what is called “a window of creative opportunity”.
Now, I know people who work as independents - and before you ask, they don’t have holiday villas in Majorca. Many feel they are locked out of large areas of broadcasting by a protectionist monopoly which works to the interests of a bloated bureaucracy. The BBC, in London at least, is never going to win any prizes for lean management. I suppose as an independent myself, I should be supporting the end of the broadcasting ‘closed shop’.
However, the BBC is more important than the independents, and this restructuring is being very badly handled. The danger is that, in their enthusiasm to demonstrate their machismo to New Labour, the present management will undermine, not only the BBC but the ecology of British broadcasting. The BBC doesn’t just make programmes, it sets the standards which other channels live up to. It not only keeps the commercial sector decent, it provides them with most of their quality staff, since only the BBC does proper training of producers and technicians.
The BBC has yet to recover from the Hutton Report. There is a lingering sense of injustice over the resignations of the chairman and Director General for suggesting that the Iraq WMD dossier had “sexed up” - a proposition which is now conventional wisdom in Whitehall.
I suspect this is in the back of many BBC strikers’ minds.There is a real suspicion that the BBC is being taken apart for the crime of not supporting the government. It is radicalising an entire generation of BBC employees. There is a real battle going on in the corporation, the effects of which could affect the BBC for many years and could be hugely damaging.
Hopefully, reason will prevail at ACAS on Thursday. There is no reason why this immediate dispute shouldn’t be resolved with sufficient goodwill. But I for one expect to be sleeping late next Wednesday.